Nigeria regained a president on February 9, 2010, when the parliament voted a provisional transfer of executive power to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.  Nigeria’s elected president Umaru Yar’Adua, suffers from chronic illness and left Nigeria for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia in late November 2009.

Jonathan, a former university professor and governor of southern Bayelsa state, is now the acting president and commander in chief of the armed forces until Yar’adua is fit enough to return and resume his duties.

The action is not without critics.  Opponents claim the move is illegal because the Constitution requires that the president inform the Senate and House of Representatives of a medical leave before they can appoint an acting leader.  Yar’Adua failed to do this so Jonathan’s appointment is viewed by strict constructionists as a constitutional breach.

Another factor contributing to opposition is religion.  Yar’Adua is a Muslim; Jonathan is a Christian.  Jonathan’s appointment has split the People’s Democratic Party which maintains an unwritten power-sharing agreement that the presidency alternates between a Muslim and a Christian so as not to breach the delicate balance between the Muslim North and the Christian South.  Yar’Adua’s northern supporters see Jonathan’s appointment as an infringement of this deal.

Since Yar’Adua’s absence, Nigeria lacked government leadership and its relations with the United States have been severely strained.  On Christmas Day a 23 year old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a landing passenger airliner which has led to increased security and Nigeria being added to the U.S. terror watch list.  Then, in January more than 300 people were killed in clashes between Muslims and Christians.

Nigeria needs leadership.  With an ailing president and a vacuum in executive leadership, good governance had begun to suffer.  While Nigeria is far from a model for democratic practices, the capacity of the National Assembly to demonstrate constitutional leadership ought to be lauded.   Nigeria is an important trade partner and regional leader, critical to U.S. interests in West Africa.